Ginger Baker, the prodigiously talented and volcanically temperamental rock drummer who helped form Cream, rock ‘n’ roll’s first supergroup, and inspired awe and imitation in a generation of drummers, died on Oct. 6. He was 80.
Cream, a trio that included guitarist-singer Eric Clapton and bassist-singer Jack Bruce, set a powerful standard for “supergroups,” bands composed of independent star musicians. During its 2 1/2-year run, Cream sold millions of records and released a run of bluesy, jazzy and psychedelic hits including “White Room,””Sunshine of Your Love” and “Tales of Brave Ulysses” in addition to rock-driven versions of blues standards such as “Crossroads” and “Spoonful.”
Clapton’s guitar work was virtuosic, Bruce provided a propulsive bass line, and Baker was widely acknowledged as rock drumming’s first colossus, as mesmerizing a showman as any preening lead singer or flamboyant guitarist.
Often behind a parapet of drums, Baker’s Mephistophelean stage presence, combined with his remarkably tasteful drumming, elevated the rock drummer from faceless metronome to percussive demigod.
His penchant for rhythmic innovation reached an apogee when he authored what many deem rock’s first epic drum solo, in Cream’s 1966 instrumental “Toad.” It was an explosion of polyrhythmic lightning, with sustained fury, lightness and clarity.
Baker professed reverence for jazz drummers Elvin Jones, Art Blakey and Max Roach, and that informed his unerring sense of complex rhythm.
But he was often reviled for his cantankerous belligerence on and off stage, and eruptions at his bandmates hastened Cream’s dissolution.
Addicted to heroin at a young age, the often cadaverously gaunt drummer became infamous for his near-sadistic behavior with his fellow musicians (he once pulled a knife on Bruce) and for going through projects and collaborators like so many disposable tissues.
Baker’s drug-fueled, profanity-laced rages, all spewed in his back-alley Cockney brogue — along with his weaponized disdain for many of rock’s most successful artists — eventually burned every artistic bridge formed during his musical heyday. He dubbed Mick Jagger a “musical moron.”
Baker squandered several fortunes on polo ponies, and his misadventures were too numerous to be catalogued. They included reckless gunplay, run-ins with tax and immigration authorities, personal bankruptcy, and fractured relationships with three ex-wives and his three children.
There was perhaps no more accurate, and recent, portrayal of his lifelong highs and lows than the 2012 documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker.” He is alternately shown lovingly nuzzling his favorite polo horses and angrily smacking with his cane the film’s director, Jay Bulger.
Peter Edward Baker — nicknamed “Ginger” for his shock of flaming red hair — was born in the hardscrabble hamlet of Lewisham, England, on Aug. 19, 1939.
By 16, Baker had quit school and began his first tours with local jazz acts, soon becoming one of London’s more highly sought after jazz drummers. His greatest mentor was Phil Seamen, a drumming wizard who introduced him to African drumming and heroin.
After Cream broke up, Baker was left with a lifelong level of bitterness over how little actual writing and publishing credit — and commensurate royalty compensation — he received for his work. That constant omission, Baker often lamented, contributed to his chronic money troubles.
As Cream was imploding, Clapton formed his next supergroup, Blind Faith, with bassist Ric Grech and singer Stevie Winwood, and Baker attached himself uninvited. Clapton was wary, given the drummer’s dark history with drugs.
Blind Faith folded in 1969, and Baker relocated to Nigeria the next year, swept up by the Afro-beat fervor.
By 1982, Baker’s career was spiraling downward thanks to his gnawing drug addiction. He exiled himself to a small town in southern Italy where he toiled on an olive farm before popping up in Los Angeles a few years later with the impulse to become an actor.
In 1993, Cream was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For Baker, Cream forever bestowed on him a label he abhorred: “rock drummer.” He saw himself foremost as a jazz drummer, with rock as one of his many facets.
“When people put drummers like John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon in the same bag as me, it’s really insulting,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “I have a gift, and none of them is even on the same street as me. The fact that I can still play is a miracle, isn’t it?”